SF street artist’s eye for detail brings Mission District’s colorful personality to life

Anthony Holdsworth comes to work on an electric bicycle equipped with a kind of trailer rig that holds an easel, lots of paints in tubes, a palette and lots of brushes. He paints in a studio sometimes, but mostly he works on the sidewalk. He’s a street artist, and his subject is usually San Francisco.

It’s not the city where cable cars climb halfway to the stars. It’s ordinary things: a taqueria, some women sitting on the waterfront, a street scene.

This day he’s at 24th and York streets in the Mission District. He’s doing a portrait of a street corner, the gray wall of the St. Francis soda fountain in the middle distance, a big neon sign in the foreground. The sign features a cocktail glass outlined in yellow and the institution’s name in red neon: POP’S.

Pop’s is a bar that has been on the corner for 75 years or so. The only nod to history in Pop’s is a framed picture of a car wreck that happened up the street in 1941. If there is poetry in ordinary things, this corner has it.

But 24th and York is the center of an extraordinary neighborhood. Across from Pop’s on the wall of a taqueria building is a 12,000-square-foot mural called “La Llorona,” the weeping woman of Mexican folklore, painted in 2004 by Juana Alicia. It is an intense, otherworldly blue. In a way it’s like the Mission: something amazing next to something ordinary. “A window into the Latin American world,” Holdsworth likes to call the neighborhood.

Holdsworth likes to paint the Mission. He’s worked in other parts of the city, in Oakland, in Nicaragua, in Italy, but he keeps coming back to the Mission. He lives not far away, so it’s easier and it’s comfortable. People know him, and he can set up on the street and not be bothered. “People come and thank me for painting places where they live,” he said.

Holdsworth is tall and lean. He was born in England, and traces of the old country are still in his voice. He is 77 now and has been painting for a very long time. “It’s a long and complicated story,” he said. He was introduced to painting in high school and it became a career when he was working in Italy. He studied in England and eventually came to the United States where he became intrigued with what he calls “the American urban landscape.”

“I see it as an immigrant,” he said. Perhaps that is one reason he is so taken with San Francisco’s Mission District immigrant culture, transposed as it is on a district of older wooden buildings. Pop’s itself occupies the lower floor of a two-story Victorian with a bay window, a remnant of the days when the Mission housed a different immigrant community. Back then, it was Irish and Italian, first-generation San Franciscans.

But that was long ago. The earlier immigrants faded away, and their sons and daughters moved out of San Francisco. The Peninsula, the East Bay, Marin and Sonoma are full of expatriate San Franciscans with Mission roots. The Mission turned Latino generations ago, and now it is changing again. Or maybe it is simply evolving, shifting, the way the light shifts.

You can see it on 24th Street between Mission Street and Potrero Avenue. Mission Street was once the cultural heart of the neighborhood, but the stretch from 16th to 24th streets has gone into decline: empty storefronts, graffiti, uncollected trash strewn about. Twenty-Fourth has taken its place.

On a bright May afternoon, 24th Street is festooned with little banners in red, green and purple strung over the street in preparation for the two-day Carnaval celebration next weekend. The old houses have been painted, the murals refreshed.

The main impression is an explosion of color in unexpected ways, San Francisco style: a huge mural of Mission Latino life looms above the House of Brakes auto repair shop at 24th and South Van Ness Avenue. On the opposite corner — kitty-corner as the Irish used to say — is the Napper Tandy Irish pub and restaurant.

Down 24th a bit more is Balmy Alley, once lined with stables and named for a racehorse. For years now, Balmy Alley has been lined with murals, representing the revolutionary struggles in Central America. The alley is a favorite of Holdsworth’s, who has done many oil paintings of the alley and its art: an artist painting art.

Holdsworth can be a bit nostalgic about his earlier days painting the Mission, especially in the 1980s, when he first got started. “There was great art here then,” he said, “the murals especially. They left their mark on all the walls.”

But there was also an undercurrent. The Mission was unsafe, especially at night. “The gangs,” Holdsworth said and left it at that. It’s safer now, but late on the night of May 14 there was a homicide at the corner of Balmy Alley and 24th Street.

Holdsworth has no illusions. He’s seen the Mission change, rent increases and evictions drive out the poorer people. “It’s quite amazing,” he said sourly. He sees the city every day with a painter’s eye.

He has made a fair living with his art. He paints for four or five hours five to seven days a week. He’s a professional in a tough business. “I knew if I painted enough I’d sell some of it,” he said.

He’s had exhibitions in museums and has shows in local galleries, and during the pandemic he had to concentrate on the internet. Like a lot of artists he’s a bit suspicious of the cyberworld — “the illusion of reality,” he calls it.

He recently completed a commission for the new Kaiser Permanente medical offices in Mission Bay — eight San Francisco paintings full of life and color. Among them: jazz in the Western Addition, a Potrero Hill community garden, Ocean Beach on a sunny day, two women sitting on a bench next to a waterfront firehouse. Ordinary life in an extraordinary city.

Carl Nolte’s columns appear in The San Francisco Chronicle’s Sunday edition. Email: cnolte@sfchronicle.com

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